You’re as good as you feel. Style is everything. If you live and breathe in the gasoline-and- French-Fries-scented eddy of freedom we call America, undoubtedly you’ve heard some variation on these messages revolving through our collective consciousness like shopping mall doors equating looking stylish with self esteem. But who can’t relate to those teenage days when looks really were about more—about developing a sense of self, an identity, a way of navigating changing, often uncomfortable times? But in some cases, it’s about simply having wearable, clean clothes. Iowa City’s United Action for Youth (355 Iowa Avenue) knows that many of us take the latest looks for granted while there are teens right here in Johnson County, right on our streets and in our schools, wearing dingy, torn attire simply because they don’t have other options. For the fourth year in a row, they are doing some- thing about it, and it’s making a difference for the young people of our community.
United Action For Youth has been here in Iowa City since 1970. “When I graduated, I came back and was working at a Mexican res- taurant. I have always had some aspect of my life, wherever I’ve lived, involved with giv- ing back to my community, and I heard about UAY I felt like I needed to be more productive in my life,” says Elena Rodriguez, a mid-20’s Iowa City native and Stanford graduate with a Masters in Sociology. “I got in touch with them and started volunteering. They have a lot of opportunities for young people and adults. People in general should be getting involved, doing something positive,” she says, smiling. “It feels good to do because it IS good to do!”
Elena works with the Transitional Living Program. It’s for young people ages 16-21 who are homeless or in unstable living situ- ations, offering a residential program—the UAY has several houses with apartments— and assistance connecting youths to important services, like job preparedness training and food assistance.
But Elena is most excited, now, for the fourth-annual Fall Clothing Drive. Started in 2009 after UAY volunteers heard from a wide range of kids about not wanting to go to school because they were ashamed of their ill-fitted or out of style clothes. “Too many didn’t want to go because they just didn’t want to be seen,” Elena says. “[UAY volunteers] thought, ‘we can do something about this.’ So we’re tak- ing appropriate teenaged clothing and hygiene items. Cool clothes, name brands, or even a variety so they aren’t wearing the same thing all the time. Teens are impressionable and making an impression counts at that age—no kid shouldn’t want to go to school to learn because of something like clothes.”
There’s a clothing drive in Spring, too, but the Fall one is more important, Elena says. “At this time it’s so important because Winter’s coming up. I know I’ve never had to think about whether or not I’ll have a coat that fits me. So we like name brand things, unopened hygiene items, but coats are most important at this time. Those have the most impact.”
But the UAY can’t do it all themselves. It takes help from the Iowa City and greater Johnson County community to make the drive a success. “We’ve put boxes in the fraternities, sororities, and have volunteers working to get them in the University dorms as well that will be there between now and Dec. 5, when the actual Clothing Drive event happens for the teens,” says Elena. “We have a good relationship with the University and the Greek community—it’s nice for them because it’s a way to give back, it’s not a lot of time or effort, and they’re glad to give back.”
But you don’t have to be University affiliated to donate to the Clothing Drive. For the rest of us, volunteers will be waiting with open arms at UAY to receive all donations during the following hours: Dec. 1 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Dec. 3 from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Dec. 4 from 9 a.m.-5 p.m..
The main event for teens interested in “shopping” the (free) styles is Dec. 5, 3 p.m.-7:30 p.m. the UAY will be set up as a store-like environment, with clothes avail able on racks in a first-come-first-served basis, for all Johnson County teens ages 12-19. “They can choose a certain number items based on how much we get,” Elena explains. “Last year it was 15 items. The more we get, the more we can give back. It’s super fun for them. I wasn’t here last year for the cloth- ing drive, but I’ve heard so many stories about how excited the kids get for their new clothes. One of my co-worker’s volunteers is close with a girl who came to one of her programs. She held some donated clothes
for her that she thought she’d like because she couldn’t make it until the very end of the Drive—the next day, she was wearing three of the pieces. Just decked out in them and ecstatic about it! I’m excited to see their reactions this year!”
Want to get involved? “We’re always looking for volunteers—you can connect with our volunteer coordinator through our website (unitedactionforyouth.org),” Elena says. “It’s nice to see people around this time of year giv- ing back. It’s a way to make your little corner of the world a little better.” And maybe even to look—and feel—a lot better.
Russell Jafffe is a Little Village arts columnist and publisher of Strange Cage poetry press.